Just Another Day in Class

I. LOVE. Bread.

Just getting that out there. So when I found out that we were making bread, I was really excited at first. But when we got to class and learned how we were doing it, I was kind of skeptical. How was this going to work? Would it even taste good? Well, these questions didn’t matter because we had to make bread anyways, so I pushed my thoughts aside and got started.

We mixed the dough with our hands and it was incredibly sticky. This posed a number of problems. First of all, I couldn’t get it off my hands. So when we got around to kneading the dough (and rotated through our group members), we, sadly, lost some of it to our hands.

When we got around to actually frying the bread, Storm did the flipping and I timed it. Our first one or two pieces were very ugly and didn’t look appetizing at all. However, once we tried all of them, they were actually pretty good! We even tried salting some, and though we thought that it would be too salty, it actually turned out to be better than the unsalted (in my opinion, anyways).

I think it was Sam, but she came really prepared with a little box of peppers and stuff–I’m not sure what exactly it was–and it was so yummy. Surprisingly, though, the best topping was actually an old jar of jam that Professor Dodd gave us. I was amazed at how delicious it was with the bread we made, and even more amazed when I found out it was in the refrigerator with the lid partially open for like a year! (it tasted good and I didn’t feel sick or anything afterwards, so let’s just forget about the fact that it’s kinda gross to think about).

Anyways, the bread was much better than I thought it would be and I’m pretty sure it’s easy enough for me to do something like that at home. It’s so easy to just go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, but this was so much more interesting. It reminded me a lot of the way they make authentic Navajo fry bread, so perhaps I’ll give that a try as well.

-Jane Kim

It’s already October, and the students have finished their first weeks of FSEM-180 Human Survival: Learning from the Past. As part of the course, the students were asked to write reflective essays on their experimental archaeology experiences. These essays can be viewed below, and more essays will be uploaded to the blog as the semester continues.

It’s been an interesting few weeks, so here’s a brief recap with some pictures.

Week 1: Introduction and Games

This first module didn’t involve any experimentation in ancient survival techniques–rather, students were encouraged to play games and get to know one another. Humans in the Neolithic didn’t have iPhones, the internet, or books to entertain themselves–they had to exercise their creativity and their social connections. We tend to think of Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples as desperate, survival-focused bands, hunting, gathering, or eventually farming for their livelihoods. But the archaeological record is full of evidence for ancient games, indicating  that the desire for entertainment is a basic human need with a long history.

Image from Rollefson, G. (1992). A Neolithic Game Board from ʿAin Ghazal, Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 286, 1-5

This limestone game board from ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan, dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C, with an uncalibrated radiocarbon date of 5870 +/-240 b.c. (That’s nearly 8,000 years ago!) While we may not understand how games such as this were played in antiquity, we can identify with the activities and motivations objects like this represent. And that’s an essential lesson in archaeology–human history can be both terribly alien and hauntingly familiar, but ultimately, we are not so far removed from the past.

Week 2: Making Fire

In the first practical module, students tackled the most essential skill of the ancient world: making fire. This turned out to be an exercise in teamwork, frustration, and despair.

The students were provided with boards and sticks. Using their hands, they attempted to create fire through friction. Some teams traded stick-spinning duties whenever a team member got tired; others traded off every ten seconds, in order to maintain the same speed of rotation without exhausting themselves. Students experimented with using notched wood, various types of tinder, and steadying blocks on top of the spinning dowels. Despite over an hour of work, endless creativity, and a lot of teamwork, no one managed to produce fire. All of the groups produced heat and smoke, but the process broke down when they attempted to spark the tinder.

We’re not entirely sure why the experiment failed. Friction fire-making is a difficult skill to master–it may have simply been too hard to complete successfully the first time around. Perhaps the wood was the wrong type (the boards were cedar, but the dowels were an indeterminate wood from the highly period-appropriate source of Home Depot). Maybe the undergraduates had difficulty because they didn’t have calluses to protect their hands from the friction.

Despite the lack of fire, we don’t count this experiment a failure. Instead, we’ve begun thinking about what to do next time: Different types of wood? Experimenting with a bow? We’re determined to make fire by the end of the semester, and we’ll be modifying the experiment until we find a method that works.

Week 3: Making Mudbricks

Our next experiment involved making mudbricks on campus. Mudbricks were the staple building block of the ancient Near East. These rectangular blocks often contained mud, sand, clay, and a temper (such as straw or grass) to strengthen and hold the brick together. Houses constructed of mudbrick tend to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and the materials are easy to find and fairly simple to combine to create the bricks. Mudbricks are not an entirely ancient concept–just think of the adobe construction still used in the American Southwest.

We decided to make our own mudbricks using alluvial soil (generously donated from a USC construction site), straw, and water. For this module, the students split into groups to create wooden molds for the bricks, mix the mud with straw, pour the mixture into the molds, and stamp the bricks with a unique signature.

Students construct wooden molds

The students used their feet as mixing tools, a process that was messy but effective.

An important thing to remember: Make sure to create the stamp lettering in reverse so it reads correctly once you have pressed it into the brick. Thankfully, the students figured this out pretty quickly.

Utilizing the stamp:

This week was a lot of fun, and the mudbricks turned out much better than the fire-making! The bricks have now dried, and we just need to decide what to construct with them.

Week 4: Pottery

For this module, we visited the USC Fine Arts ceramic laboratory, where professor Karen Koblitz gave us a fascinating and interactive lesson in pottery production. The class split into groups and rotated between two stations. At the first station, Professor Koblitz taught students how to hand-model their own oil lamps, toasting trays, and figurines. They learned that figurines need to be hollowed out after a certain thickness, or else they will explode in the kiln. Among the undergraduates’ creations were stylized animals and a somewhat incongruous snowman–what would future archaeologists make of that particular offering?

Oil lamps, trays, and figurines. Can you spot the snowman?

The second station involved coiling pots and learning about burnishing from Tim Linden, one of our very own archaeology majors. Keeping the coil pots uniformly shaped and preventing them from collapsing was surprisingly difficult, but the students produced a few (slightly lopsided) vessels.  Others attempted to burnish pots that Tim has created for a later brewing experiment. Burnishing involves rubbing the surface of the clay to close the pores and produce a smooth, glossy surface. This can be done with a variety of tools–cloth, leather, spoons, stones. We will be using these pots in our brewing experiments (both burnished and unburnished), testing the levels of liquid retention and bacteria growth during the fermentation process. Will the burnished pots be better beer containers? Our suspicion is that they will, but we won’t know for sure until we conduct the experiment.

Students tried using stones to burnish the pottery vessels

Week 5: Cheese-Making

This was probably the most successful of the experiments, as each group went home with a delicious chunk of mozzarella, but it was also the experiment that strayed the furthest from ancient methods. With the majority of experiments, we have tried to stay relatively close to the ancient materials and techniques, but constraints of time, space, and material resulted in us using metal cooking pots, microwaves, and store-bought ingredients to manufacture the cheese. Nevertheless, the experiment gave students a general idea of what cheese-making would have been like, and the students realized how much more time-consuming the process would have been without the aid of modern technology and ingredients.


So what have students learned from the first five weeks of Human Survival: Learning from the Past? The general conclusion is that things took much longer in the past than they do now and required far more work. We’re used to having our needs provided for by others, the information or goods we need accessible with just a click or the touch of a button. And yet despite all our technological abilities, our knowledge and experience, we were unable to do something so basic as making fire. It makes one wonder: Who first discovered how to light friction fires or how to produce cheese? How much trial and error went into forming and firing the first pottery? How hard would life have been in the past, when simply surviving required so much manual labor and time?

We can’t help but question exactly how well we would have survived in ancient times. I suspect if the FSEM-180 class was suddenly dropped 8,000 years in the past (using our handy archaeology time machine), many of the students would have difficulty providing for even the most basic needs of food and shelter. But perhaps not–learning is a process, after all, and who knows what they’ll be able to do by the end of the semester?

-Sarah H

Making cheese was an eye opening experience. I never quite understood what really went into cheese. It’s amazing how concentrated of a food source cheese! I can imagine how valuable a food source like this would be in ancient times. Not only is cheese a super condensed form of nutrition but, if prepared correctly, can be stored for years. While sitting down at the end of class snacking on the delicious mozzarella we made earlier, I found myself wondering how did the first person to make cheese figure it out. How would somebody know to mix citric acid in milk? It’s a complex process and the ingenuity required to finish successfully is astonishing.

To be honest, in the beginning I wasn’t confident that our group would end up with a viable product. So when we did, I was pleasantly surprised and quite proud. I certainly appreciate cheese in general now a bit more, but I am also more aware that I am consuming a gallon of condensed milk with every portion. I can only picture the cream on top of the pasteurized milk slowly spilling out and splashing into the bowl. It was interesting how every group’s result products were unique. Either by having texture or a different shape they were all different. This just confirms the notion that cheese making is an art form, and one that I now respect much more

Based on the class description I didn’t know what to expect from “Human Survival: Learning from the Past”, but it has become hands down my favorite class so far. I am excited to see what other endeavors we attempt.

– Steve Anderson

Roughly during the first three weeks of class, we covered various survival skills. The first artistry that the class attempted to tackle was creating a fire. The process takes a lot of time and energy and, in my opinion, the task is tedious. Materials that we used to for the operation were a plank of wood, a wooden stick, a saw, dried leaves and other fuel and a carving knife. The goal, as claimed by the Youtube videos seen in class, is to make a deep, narrow hole close to the edge of one of the plank’s sides. When this is done, the wooden stick is to be inserted into the hole and twist rapidly, shredding hot sawdust. The hot sawdust would then start a fire when contacted by a little oxygen and the dried leaves. In reality, though, the process is more complicated than instructed. You need to possess a skill at twisting the wooden stick in order to get really hot sawdust, which none of the students were able to do. We were at this activity for the whole hour and a half of class and fire was not created. We did not even get the chance to make paint for rock art. Professor Dodd, however, promised us that we would make a fire before the semester finishes, so I am excited to see what she has in mind.

The next project that we completed in class was making mud bricks. I did not find the activity to be fun or that interesting, but at least we were successful in making sturdy bricks. The ingredients for this job consisted of water, dirt and hay. We imprinted USC logos onto our creation and I am curious to see how our bricks turned out once they are completely dried. My favorite undertakings that we have done thus far are the mozzarella-cheese-making and the making of clay oil lamps, trays and jars.

– Leticia Samaniego

While I was considering what I should do with my 2 extra credits during my first semester at USC, I realized just how many different options I had in front of me. I could take anything from golf lessons to dance. However, I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to do something that extreme during my first semester. I had been advised several times, from several different people, that given the opportunity I should take advantage of a Freshman Seminar. I was told it was a great way to meet people and it seemed like a low stress class that would help me adjust. So when I saw that a seminar actually fit into my schedule I was excited and quickly signed up for FSEM 180. Well, if I thought I was taking the normal route, I could not have been in for any more of a surprise.

After four weeks of class, I am quickly starting to realize just what an experience I signed myself up for. We have only had four classes and have already made mudbricks and various things with clay for our later activities. Not to mention I have discovered the hard way (literally the hard way; my hands have begun to form calluses where my blisters once were) that I have absolutely no future in old school fire-making. Let’s just leave it at I do not think I will be getting my own show on the Discovery channel anytime soon. My hands over the last three weeks or so have been a physical reminder of how much easier things are today. Make fire once in 4000 BC, feel it for 3 weeks. Make fire once in 2012, takes more time to find a lighter than to actually make a flame.

As a result of the first weeks, I find myself with a new found respect for people in ancient times. But furthermore, I find myself with a desire to be able to successfully complete some of the activities in the coming weeks. I look forward to each of the challenges ahead.

Beren Chandler

On September 4th, our class attempted to make fire the “human survival” way: using only a simple wooden stick and board. During the first 20 minutes or so of class, we watched an expert fire maker build a fire using only these resources. He built the fire rather easily and my first thought was: seems easy enough, let’s go. Once we started this process, however, it turned out to be a whole different story. And in the end, every one of us failed to get a fire going.

As for the process, we first had to make a small place on the board for the stick to rotate and create friction in. Luckily, one of the members in our team had a pocket knife set, which we took advantage of in order to create that little hole for our dowel to rotate in. Then we sharpened the end of the dowel, also using the pocket knife, and started to rotate it with our hands as fast and consistently as possible in order to create the friction and start to build up some heat. As easy as rubbing your hands together sounds, it was really hard to go for long stretches of time. One reason is that we just didn’t have the stamina to keep doing this simple task. Another reason is that it hurt, and it hurt pretty badly. By the time class was over, many of the students had to get bandages for their hands because they were starting to blister from all the friction. In the end, our group got some smoke going, but that was pretty much it.

In today’s world, making fire is such an easy task. All you need is a match or a lighter. Through this activity, I realized just how much we take these small things for granted. Building a fire from scratch is super hard. That man on YouTube has my respect.


-Stephen Kim

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this class. Ostensibly it promised to be an exploration of the tools and techniques used by early man to accomplish everyday life, but practically I looked at it as more of a series on apocalypse preparation. It’s been exactly what I imagined: the chance to weekly attempt some absurdly anachronistic activity in the name of hands-on-history.

What’s more, I think it can be looked at as a terrific study of sociology, rather unintentionally, in a dozen small ways. Take for example our week 3 attempt at creating mud bricks. Superficially, this was just another agreeably antediluvian activity to pass an afternoon, but more deeply, it was a series of puzzles that must be solved by a score of people with little experience working together, and none whatsoever working with clay bricks. We had the raw materials laid out before us, and had to collectively apportion ourselves out to the various tasks at hand, working together to produce primitive construction supplies. A handful of people set to work constructing molds (and in doing so, solving the puzzle of how to efficiently use our lumber); others felt their skills would be best used tromping in the muck. Some were saddled with the task of digging out an uncooperative ditch, and in one of my favorite instances, a handful of people were set to gathering water from the adjacent vending kiosk. The bathroom inside did not, of course, have a conveniently placed spigot, so we wound up with a rather involved apparatus of sinks, boards, exhumed tubes, and garbage bags all attempting to funnel water into our little bucket.  It was really a marvel of engineering. I was quite proud. (more…)

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